In his annual Christmas commentary, Rev. Robert A. Sirico examines the meaning of a season “prompted by the very Incarnation of God’s Love, a love that goes beyond words, but rather is a Word – the Logos – that became flesh.” A shorter version of this article was published on Dec. 21 in the Detroit News. Sign up for the free, weekly email newsletter Acton News & Commentary here.
The ‘Small’ God Who Brought Heaven Down to Earth
By Rev. Robert A. Sirico
Some years ago I found myself at a fashionable dinner party in Los Angeles where the lamb was roasted to perfection, and the deep, rich red Australian wine complimented it to a tee. The conversation around the dinner table was likewise high-minded and it did not take this largely secular gathering very long to turn their attention to the Christian sitting in their midst. With all the graciousness and condescension she could muster, my dining companion turned to me and said, “I am not a believer, of course, but I have long admired your Church’s care for the poor and suffering and the generosity and effectiveness of your social agencies who tend to human needs without regard to the belief or non-belief of the recipient.”
Had she stopped there I would have humbly received her acknowledgement and we might have moved on to the dessert in the same spirit of conviviality we had begun. It was when she smiled, drew a breath and said, “Yet — ” that I knew all had not been said that needed saying from her perspective.
“Yet,” she continued, “how is it that Christianity, whose priests invented the scientific method, and who built the institutions of the hospital and university, can hold to the idea of such a small God?”
The pugnacious New Yorker in me wanted to reply to the effect that, “Well even a small God is bigger than no god.” But I knew that would not go down well, and that the issue was not about “size” after all, but about meaning and, ultimately, Truth.
Feeling something like I imagined Flannery O’Connor did when confronted with collapsed-Catholic Mary McCarthy’s observation about the Eucharist as a impressive symbol, O’Connor retorted, “Well, if it’s just a symbol, I say to hell with it.”
Instead I swirled my shiraz and asked, “Whatever do you mean?”
She responded: “Well, all this stuff about God being born as a baby. This business about the ineffable inhabiting time and space. It just seems so small, so concrete, so … improbable.”
The lady had it right, or more precisely, she had it half right. The doctrine of the Incarnation is indeed a scandal, not to say improbable, to the modern mind that does not yet grasp the immensity of the concept or the enormity of its impact on all that would follow from it throughout history from that first Christmas to this one.
That the eternal God should deign to co-mingle in time and space with humanity does tell us something, not about the ‘smallness’ of God, but about the inestimable dignity of the human person who is created in the image of the Lord of History. Thus it tells us about the importance of human history to eternity; of the relation of the visible world to the invisible one; and of the way the mortal life we each live here and now determines our immortal destiny.
This season, which pulsates with nostalgia, memory, sadness as well as with a deep and abiding sense of profound joy and human meaning – and does it all at once – is a season prompted by the very Incarnation of God’s Love, a love that goes beyond words, but rather is a Word – the Logos – that became flesh.
It is for this very reason that the Christian faith which emerges from this proclamation about God’s entrance into the human condition, could build institutions and cultures aimed at concretely reverencing each and every human person from the very first moment of their existence in the womb, in all their vulnerability and potential, without regard to their ethnicity or some other accidental factor. It is the belief stipulated in that memorable passage from Ecclesiastes (3:11): “He has … set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”
This idea can easily be dismissed by armchair sociologists and village atheists as the ranting of a Christian who presumes his message of the enfleshment of God to be true and therefore universally appealing.
But more than appealing it is compelling. As it was to my non-believing dinner companion who, in admiring the social consequences of institutional Christianity (from the university education she received that enabled her to articulate her critique in the first place, to the transforming of personal almsgiving into the massive worldwide network of social care and education, and even to the moral and justifiable denunciations against Christians for their failures to live up to the demands of the Gospel) she was in some inchoate way acknowledging the core idea of Christmas: that in the fullness of time, Heaven came down to earth to reveal man to himself and invite him to the simple, discrete yet world-changing concept of love.
Merry Christmas. And God bless us, everyone. Here’s hoping that all readers have enough to keep them warm and safe this holiday season and throughout the coming year. By all means, if you have more than enough, it might warm your soul to share with those less fortunate. My new Acton commentary:
Scrooge and the Ghosts of Charity
By Bruce Edward Walker
“Man,” said the Ghost, “if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered what the surplus is, and where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be that in the sight of heaven you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child. O God! To hear the insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!”
Thus spoke the Ghost of Christmas Present in Charles Dickens’ holiday classic, A Christmas Carol, coincidentally the genesis of the greeting: “Merry Christmas.”
The novella has been in print since its publication nearly 170 years ago, and has inspired countless stage, television and cinematic adaptations. Its cultural significance often is cast reductively as “those who have should share with those who don’t.” While nearly all holiday broadcasts seem to support this assessment, a closer reading of Dickens’ actual text reveals something a bit more complex, including the negative impact government-allocated charity has on personal giving.
That Ebenezer Scrooge was a successful businessman in the story is indisputable. He and his partner, Jacob Marley, filled the respective voids in their lives with the pursuit of profits. The reader can’t be certain as to the reasons why Marley myopically dedicated his life to earning money, but we know he died a wealthy man who may or may not have been forced to pay for his skin-flinted, uncharitable ways by wandering the Earth after death bound in chains festooned with account books and money boxes. (Scrooge has a head cold and, perhaps, indigestion, and may or may not be dreaming/hallucinating the apparitions of Marley and the three subsequent phantoms.)
What the reader is told, however, are details of Scrooge’s – in modern parlance – dysfunctional past, and how it formed him into a lonely, cantankerous near-recluse who employs his wealth as a shield against the human interaction which has injured him in the past. For it isn’t the possession of money that makes Scrooge a miserable man, it is his lack of human connection. His disconnection from his family leads to his single-minded pursuit of income, which, in turn, leads to the breakup with his fiancée, further perpetuating his loneliness.
But money isn’t the means to the happiness that Scrooge witnesses fleetingly in his own past or in the present circumstances of his nephew, Fred, and his employee, Bob Cratchit. As Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Past survey events at Fezziwig’s Christmas party, the phantom observes that Fezziwig “has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money: three or four perhaps. Is that so much that he deserves this praise?” Scrooge responds that it wasn’t the spending of money that made his employer’s party so successful but that “his power lies in words and looks.”
And, from his fiancée: “You fear the world too much…. All your other hopes have merged into the hope of being beyond the chance of its sordid reproach. I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off one by one, until the master passion, gain, engrosses you. Have I not?”
When Scrooge visits the present, he observes the cruel circumstances of an indifferent Earth, but also the power of humankind to transform it with optimism: “There was nothing very cheerful in the climate or town, and yet there was an air of cheerfulness abroad that the clearest summer air and brightest summer sun might have endeavored to diffuse in vain.”
And Scrooge witnesses Fred defend his uncle from the uncharitable assessments of his wife and guests:
I am sorry for him: I couldn’t be angry with him if I tried. Who suffers by his ill whims? Himself always. Here he takes it into his head to dislike us, and he won’t come and dine with us. What’s the consequence? He doesn’t lose much of a dinner…. [T]he consequence of his taking a dislike to us and making merry with us, is, as I think, that he loses some pleasant moments, which could do no harm. I am sure he loses pleasanter companions than he can find in his own thoughts, either in his moldy old office or his dusty chambers.
As the Spirit of Christmas Present prepares to leave, the ghost introduces Scrooge to the two waifs, Ignorance and Want, hiding in his coats. “Have they no refuge or resource?” asks Scrooge, to which the Spirit echoes Scrooge’s earlier interrogative to the men seeking a charitable donation from the businessman: “Are there no prisons? … Are there no workhouses?”
Readers for decades have interpreted this line as another indication of Scrooge’s selfishness and miserly ways. This interpretation isn’t helped by the numerous visual adaptations of Scrooge as willingly hoarding his money out of spite for the poor, disadvantaged and under-industrious. But what if Scrooge actually has a point – if one relies on government programs to help the poor, how can one be blamed for asserting “I gave at the office” rather than ponying up at the Salvation Army drum or the church collection basket, or buying a Christmas goose for the laid-off father of the family at the end of the block?
It’s easy to turn one’s attention from a community’s immediate needs if there is an assumption that one’s taxes are doing the job that might better be done through charitable contributions. Dickens acknowledges during Marley’s visitation:
“The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley’s Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free. Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives. He had been quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to his ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom he saw below, upon a doorstep. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power forever.”
Eventually Ebenezer Scrooge awakens and reenters the world of humankind, a kinder, gentler individual who willingly gives of himself – and portions of his earnings – to benefit the families of his nephew and employee, and further donates to the charity whose solicitors he had chased from his office the day before.
Scrooge’s transformation is a personal epiphany—perhaps brought about by the supernatural, but personal nonetheless. His observations of the deprivation of his fellow man lead him to realize government’s limitations as a protector of the poor and needy. Government doesn’t lead Scrooge to adopt Christian principles of charitable giving, but it is government that absolves him of guilt for not initially meeting the responsibility of caring for his fellow man.
Bruce Edward Walker, a Michigan-based writer, writes frequently on the arts and other topics for the Acton Institute.
If you continue to wonder why the U.S. economy, long after it has shown signs of life and has started to recover from the Great Recession in fits and starts, refuses to take off, here’s a pretty good answer: “Our entrepreneurs have lost faith in the federal government,” says Michael Franc.
He’s not the only one saying it, but he says it well. Uncertainty is the bane of commerce; thus it’s no mystery why businesses have stashed a record amount of cash aside rather than pouring it into new initiatives and new jobs. Franc writes:
This layered uncertainty looms as a Sword of Damocles over every business, every investor, and every head of household in America. It has suffocated the risk-taking, entrepreneurial spirit that has made America the exceptional nation in human history. For entrepreneurship hinges on intelligent risk-taking, not closing your eyes and plunging headfirst off the foggy cliff of government intervention and manipulation.
In a follow up to Jordan Ballor’s commentary last week, “Christian Giving Begins with the Local Church,” here is a related excerpt from Darren Dochuk’s From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the rise of Evangelical Conservatism. I will review the new book published by Norton in the next issue of Religion & Liberty and for the PowerBlog. The excerpt from Dochuk’s book is an excellent reflection of not just how the local church can fulfill their Gospel mandate to help the poor, but also empower and build the community:
The sense of community the Allens found in this congregation was deeper than anything found in Dodson. Theirs was not an uncommon experience. During the last stages of the Depression, southern evangelicals relied heavily on their churches for support of all kind. After moving from Oklahoma to Compton in the 1930s, Melvin Shahan, for instance, saw his parents falling into debt, even with his own weekly ten-dollar paycheck from Goodyear helping out. In response, the Shahans’ church organized a “pounding,” a ritual that saw congregants stock the pantry of a needy and unsuspecting friend with canned goods, preserves, and smoked meat. Melvin would later recall that such acts of kindness were facilitated in part because his neighbors lived so nearby, something he did not experience in Oklahama:
‘So many people there are at Guymon [Oklahoma] came from neighboring farmhouses out around town. When they came into town for the services, it was farther for them to drive than it was here [Compton] where people lived right in the immediate area of their church.’
For the Shahan family, the intimacy of the country church often idealized by those from the South was a reality not enjoyed until after arriving in Southern California. The same applied for the Allens. When wartime conditions sent fathers to the front and mothers to work, the congregants of Southern Missionary leaned especially hard on each other. Since women constituted a majority of church membership during these years, the onus for community fell on them. Churchwomen not only organized drives to increase Sunday attendance but also made sure that neighborhood families were provide with child care, transportation, and, when needed, financial support. For Marie Allen, whose family livelihood depended on her full-time work at a local defense plant, such neighborly assistance proved financially critical. More importantly, it strengthened the bonds of Christian sisterhood and her ties to the church family. (p.21)
ALMIGHTY God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.